How Old is Too Old to Be a Screenwriter?

Posted by D.B. Gilles on

Raymond Chandler wrote his first screenplay at 56. He didn't even publish his first novel until he was 51. For the record, he wrote the original screenplays for 'Double Indemnity' and 'Strangers On A Train.'

In 1939, after F. Scott Fitzgerald's career as a novelist had faltered, he needed money fast. He went to Hollywood and found work as a screenwriter. He was 43 years old. William Faulkner wrote his first screenplay at 48. Joseph Mankiewitz (who, incidentally, rewrote Fitzgerald) was well over 35 when he wrote 'All About Eve.'

As for contemporary screenwriters: William Goldman is pushing 70; David Mamet is 53; the Coen brothers are over 35. Academy Award®-winning authors of 'Shakespeare In Love,' Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman, are no spring chickens. Norman is closer to 60 than 50, and Stoppard turns 64 this year. But these guys all fall under the category of 'established' screenwriters. They've been around awhile, i.e. since they fell under the category of 'young' screenwriters. So maybe the rules don't count for them. There's nothing like a track record to get a pitch meeting, a script read and a deal.

So, the more relevant question has to do not with the plight of established screenwriters, but with the new screenwriter with a few miles on him or her? And when I use the term 'new,' I don't limit that to the 'older' person who starts his first screenplay tomorrow. I'm also including that huge pool of hearty souls who've been writing screenplays for years and years (or decades) without getting so much as a foot in the door. It's getting that foot in that door that leads me to the two things older screenwriters have going against them. The Big A's: Ageism and Access.

The Ageism factor is pretty easy to understand. Somehow, older (and presumably wiser) isn't necessarily better or smarter. In Hollywood think, a 23-year-old will write a more commercially viable script than a 43-year-old or 53-year-old. They might be right, if the plot has to do with high school or college kids ('American Pie,' 'Road Trip' or any Freddy Prinze Jr. movie). But when it comes to stories with depth and weight, I think it's fair to say that age and life experience will supercede youth and inexperience.

Not that screenwriters over 35 aren't capable of writing dumb, inane and just plain awful scripts. And don't assume for one second that there aren't young screenwriters who've written wonderful, complex, smart, wise-beyond-their-years scripts.

This happens more often than you might think. I've experienced it firsthand. I've been teaching screenwriting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in The Department of Dramatic Writing and Film & Television Department since 1988. I've taught well over a thousand students, most of them undergraduates. I've taught at other places and have been a script consultant on hundreds of screenplays.

There's a moment in 'Finding Forrester' in which Sean Connery reacts in awe upon learning that the gifted young writer played by Rob Brown is only 16. I know that feeling. On more than one occasion, I've been blown away by the work of several of the young writers who've studied with me.

But the fact remains, the older a screenwriter (or any writer) gets, the better he or she gets. The same applies to professional athletes, lawyers, chefs, actors or blacksmiths. Energy and enthusiasm are replaced by skill. Guessing at what life is like is replaced by living it.

Why shouldn't someone who starts writing screenplays at 37 be given the benefit of the doubt that she will write a good one?

The age thing is a problem for the new, but not youthful screenwriter. And it's exacerbated by the second obstacle: Access. Or lack thereof.

If you're young (and I'll qualify that as being 27 or under), or if you're youngish (say 28-35), you have a better shot at gaining access largely because of physical appearance. Younger screenwriters don't have to be afraid of meetings with producers and even agents.

But as an older screenwriter, by virtue of a few (or a considerable amount of) gray hairs, crows feet and a mid-life bulge, you risk turning potential deal makers off simply because you'll be perceived as old. There's a peculiar kind of thinking in Hollywood that if you're older and haven't sold a script nor had one made, that somehow you can't possibly be any good.

And with so many universities and colleges offering Screenwriting Programs, more and more high school students are enrolling in them and coming out with BA's in Screenwriting. If a student goes to the right school, he will be pursued by agents and producers before he even graduates.

Let's get back to the person who decides to write his or her first script at 37? Or 46? Or 58? If you're a young 37 and can pass for say, 30, no problem. If you're a youthful 46, in good shape and with a full head of hair, again, no problem. But if you're out of shape and balding and have bad skin and are an overall physical wreck, you may have problems. Not with someone reading your script. But when you're called for a meeting.

This is when it can get uncomfortable.

I've talked to agents about their policies of taking on clients, and to producers about screenwriters with whom they may want to work. They will all say that age isn't an issue. All that matters is a good script with good writing and a good story (which is why it's to your advantage to get an agent first.) She will send out your script, and nobody will have to know that you have children in college or that you're about to become a grandmother.

But try not to meet the agent in person before she has read your script if you're a high-end baby boomer not in the best of shape. There will be a predisposition to judge you as being too out of touch to have written anything commercial. And with regard to those screenwriters in their 30s and 40s who've been at it for a long time, there's always that little inclination of people in the industry to assume that if you were any good you would've made it by now.

On the other hand, let's say you manage to get an agent to read your screenplay, and she loves it enough to want to represent you, and then she meets you. Your age might not be a factor if she thinks she can sell your work. It'll only become a factor if, as a result of having your script sent out to production companies and studios, people want to meet you.

If they liked your script enough to overlook the fact that you're not a 21-year-old junior in UCLA's Screenwriting Program, they too may overlook your age. Or, if your script is soooooo good and fresh and original. Or if they like you and your attitude and personality and general disposition. Or if they are your age. Or older. To a producer in his early 30s, a screenwriter in his late 40s might be a threat. Without getting too psychological, there might be a father figure or older brother thing going on. But to a producer in his 60s, if you're 45 you're still semi-young to him.

The fact is, no matter how old you are, it's still what's between the covers of your script. If you're 38 or 59 and you've written a 118-page turd, your age has nothing to do with it. Plain and simple, you've written a turd. And if some 22-year-old clerk at Blockbuster with zits who still lives with his parents has written a great screenplay that sells for a million bucks, so be it.

Is it better to be young and starting a career as a screenwriter? Yes. Is it maddening if you started writing screenplays when you were young, and ten years have gone by without anything happening? Yes. Are the odds against you if you're over 35 and writing your first screenplay? Absolutely.

But that's all the more reason to try. Why? Because you're a writer, so you know that the best stories are always the ones when your hero triumphs over insurmountable odds.

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